May 28, 2009

Out, Out, Alien Reason

Let's reach back into the English Renaissance for a poem from a literary era that Yvor Winters held in such high esteem (so high that many have thought that he wished to return modern literary culture to its conditions, which is a thoroughly misinformed view). Winters chose none of the sharp, short, witty, poems of George Turberville for the Winters Canon, but he did use one of Turberville's shortest ditties as the epigraph to the Quest for Reality anthology. His work is all in the Plain Style, which Winters so ably delineated during his critical career -- and I would certainly like to see more modern poetry written with this approach: dense, abstract, focused on ideas and wit. As to theme, Turberville's work is mostly conventional for the times, concerned with time passing and the challenges of love, as much of English and French lyric poetry of the time. Though I do not judge the following poem great, I find it thought-provoking and very well written:

To His Love, That Sent Him a Ring Wherein Was Graved, "Let Reason Rule"

Shall Reason rule where Reason Hath no right
Nor never had? shall Cupid lose his lands?
His claim? his crown? his kingdom? name of might?
No, Friend, thy ring doth will me thus in vain;
Reason and Love have ever yet been twain.

They are by kind of such contrary mold,
As one mislikes the other's lewd device:
What Reason wills Cupid never would;
Love never yet thought Reason to be wise.
To Cupid I my homage erst have done;
Let Reason rule the hearts that she hath won.

by kind": by nature
"lewd": common

One would have to dig deep to understand fully what Turberville intended here. Is he bucking himself up to make or keep a commitment to some babe, or his wife, with this mythology of Reason and Cupid? From what I know of him, which is quite modest, he meant what he seems to have meant by the first and last lines, that he wishes to exclude Reason from matters of love. But to what purpose he wishes to indulge himself in such a construct, as we might now put it, I do not know.

Yet despite the sharp excellence of this small poem, I find the central premise to be almost entirely untrue. Reason and Love do not hold sway over seperate realms, and Love rules no province in which Reason has no right. (The very idea of rational thought having rights of any sort within the precincts of the human soul or spirit is very strange.) Reason can, does, and should control activities in the land of Love to some degree, sometimes small, sometimes quite large -- perhaps most often as an Inner Check on the promptings and demands of Cupid.

So why, we may ask, did Turberville wish to tell himself these little myths (if myths they are, which is wide open for endless debate, of course)? He doesn't seem to be proferring these ideas insincerely or satirically, from what I know of his life and work. But it is clearly obvious, and was so in Turberville's day, I believe, that human beings often do employ reason in the business of love. So why would the poet defend his myth? We can only speculate about Turberville, while trying to survey the lands where Cupid and Reason vie in our own souls to see what application his ideas might have. For we in this age are deeply taken with this same myth, that the ways of Love cannot and should not be controlled or influenced by Reason. Indeed, so much does the poem express notions that are widespread in modern times that it feels almost romantic in its implications, though, of course, Romanticism would not come to full flower until more than two centuries later.

Many poems of the Winters Canon are concerned with issues that are central to "To His Love," which we might generally call the province of Reason. Yvor Winters's own "John Sutter" is one of the great studies of the power of desire or passion in human experience. One phrase from the poem, "grained by alchemic change," strikes to the heart of the matter. The phrase refers to the "madness" for gold that overmastered and led to destructiveness the prospectors on Sutter's land. The poem speaks to the power of the passions nearly to transform our nature, at least for periods when we give in to their sway, though Winters held that Reason can and does and often should hold sway over such passions.

But what came to mind more readily is Edith Wharton's novel The Age of Innocence, one of the great novels of all-time in the judgment of Yvor Winters (I concur), perhaps the first prominent critic to judge it so highly. The Age of Innocence concerns, in part, the ways in which Reason and other forces check Cupid. I think that novel stands above this poem as a more true and complete evaluation of the relationship between them because it more accurately portrays the psychic landscape where Reason and Cupid and moral codes and competing desires jostle for control. Also, I might add, Martin Scorsese's film of the novel is worth seeing as well. I consider this film to be one of the finest ever made, judging it apart from the novel it adapted so well and so thoroughly as I am able. Though off the subject, I note that the film uses the symbol of sumptuousness more forcefully than the novel, with insightful results. But that's a subject for another post.

Turberville's poem also brought to mind a passage from William James's famed speech "Remarks at the Peace Banquet," which he gave in Boston on the closing day of the World Peace Congress in October of1904:

Reason is one of the very feeblest of nature's forces, if you take it at only one spot and moment. It is only in the very long run that its effects become perceptible. Reason assumes to settle things by weighing them against each other without prejudice, partiality or excitement; but what affairs in the concrete are settled by is, and always will be, just prejudices, partialities, cupidities and excitements.

Turberville goes beyond this. However feeble it might be, he seeks to exclude Reason, though, as I say, what he fears from Reason malingering in Cupid's supposed realm is uncertain.

Of course, the Renaissance is littered with poems on or related to the subject. One I thought of is Christopher Marlowe's famous lines from "Hero and Leander":

It lies not in our power to love or hate,
For will in us is over-ruled by fate.
The reason no man knows; let it suffice,
What we behold is censured by our eyes.
Where both deliberate, the love is slight.
Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?

There's the expression of a myth that reigns in hearts to this day, as Hollywood shows us again and again. Lastly, I must note that William Shakespeare also had much to say on the subject of the relationship of Reason and Cupid. "Sonnet 147" from his famed series is particularly complementary to Turberville's concerns:

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease;
Feeding on that which doth preserve the ill,
The uncertain sickly appetite to please.
My reason, the physician to my love,
Angry that his prescriptions are not kept,
Hath left me, and I desperate now approve,
Desire his death, which physic did expect.
Past cure I am, now reason is past care,
And frantic-mad with evermore unrest;
My thoughts and my discourse as madmen’s are,
At random from the truth vainly express’d;
For I have sworn thee fair, and thought thee bright,
Who art as black as hell, as dark as night.

Note, however, the much different tone -- Shakespeare seeing love in this instance as a hellish disease. In contrast to this sonnet, Turberville's poem expresses no lament over Reason leaving him. Rather he insists upon Reason's departure -- to the point of denying its rights in the lands of Cupid.

Ah, well, now we have much to reflect on. In sum, George Turberville's little poem brings up a questions that I have pondered a lot in my days. For me, the principal one is why we tell ourselves -- and often deeply convince ourselves -- of little myths, like Turberville's, by which to live our lives. I believe Turberville is mostly wrong, as sharp and sure as his verse is. But, perhaps, his myth is valuable, maybe even essential, for some purposes. Perhaps we can only love truly and fully by believing that love has no truck with reason. How I wish J.V. Cunningham had studied this subject of Reason and Cupid in English Renaissance poetry.

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